June 26, 2009
Poet and hip-hop artist Toni Blackman brought her hot rhymes to an equally hot stage at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. As temperatures climbed into the upper 80s Thursday, Blackman read from her book of poetry, Inner Course: A Plea for Real Love.
She also performed several spoken word pieces, and led the crowd in an energetic freestyle session. The audience-chosen topic was something everyone was feeling: the heat.
Blackman has worked for the U.S. State Department as a cultural ambassador and founded The Lyrical Embassy, which encompasses her music, poetry, book and experiences as an ambassador. She will make more appearances at the festival as part of Giving Voice, which celebrates African American oral traditions from radio to song to storytelling, including three today (June 26) at 11 a.m. in The Oratorium, 1 p.m. at the Radio Station and 2 p.m. at the Barbershop/Beauty Parlor.
I had a chance to speak with Blackman after her performance yesterday and asked her about the festival, oral tradition and her views of poetry and hip-hop.
What brings you to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival?
I lived in D.C. for many years. I went to Howard, and one of the first organizations to support my work with hip-hop ironically was the Smithsonian. Kim Chan, who was with the Washington Performing Arts Society, brought a program idea that we were working on to Smithsonian, and we ended up doing a major international hip-hop festival back in 1998. I’ve done stuff with the Anacostia Museum, the African-American Museum and for me, it’s sort of a coming home because I grew at the Smithsonian.
What role does poetry play in oral tradition?
Poetry plays a very critical role in the oral tradition, in that poets have helped to preserve the tradition. I think through contemporary spoken word, poetry has basically added fuel to this flame that was already flickering. It was there on the sideline, and the spoken word movement brought poetry back to the people. So that the guy who’s a postman, the woman who works as a manager at Foot Locker, the guy who’s a lawyer during the week, they, too, feel like they can be poets. I think that’s really important. And more important than that is just how many young people write poetry. Now, it’s just a given, like you play basketball, you play chess, you swim and you write poetry. I think that’s very exciting for the oral tradition.
How has hip-hop influenced oral tradition?
I believe that hip-hop is what rejuvenated interest in poetry. It was hip-hop and rap that motivated an entire generation of people to consider oral expression as an option for something to do with their time.
What is the relationship between poetry and spoken word?
I do agree with people who think that there is a distinction between poetry written for the page and poetry written for the stage. There’s that material which is written to be read and that material which is written to be heard. And I think it’s okay to acknowledge that. I think what’s important, as we acknowledge it, is that we don’t’ put one above the other. It is possible for both to coexist, but not necessarily always in the same venue. What’s special about the Festival is that it attracts artists who are rooted in the spirit of the art.
June 25, 2009
Russia has a certain mystique with its intriguing mix of old and new, east and west. Influenced by countries in the Middle East and Europe, Russian culture varies from the extravagance of czars to the utilitarianism of dictators.
This summer, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is featuring a fabulous exhibit, “Tsars and the East.” These are the exquisite, almost decadent, gifts that the Russian czars received from Iranian and Ottoman diplomats as they sought political favor from Moscow. Casting our eyes about the Mall, we decided to seek out some Russian-related artifacts on view, or housed, within the collections of other Smithsonian museums.
The National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian at the National Museum of American History has the largest collection of coins, medals, decorations and paper currency in North America—including a sizable selection of Russian coins and medals. The Russian collection of more than 10,000 coins and 1,250 medals was once owned by the Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich, nephew of Czar Alexander II of Russia.
At the National Museum of American History, a chain-mail vest worn by the Russian governor of Alaska, Alexander Baranov, from 1799 to 1818 brings to life an often-overlooked history of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Alaska was then known as the Territory of Baranov or Russian America. In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward approved the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. The vest, which is currently not on view, was given to President Theodore Roosevelt by George Kostrometinov, an Alaskan of Russian descent, in 1906 and has been part of the Smithsonian collection ever since.
Artifacts from the Cold War, a more recent and well-known part of Russia-U.S. relations than the Alaska purchase, are on display in the National Museum of American History. Information about the nuclear arms race and its effects on everyday life in America is presented in the “Science and American Life” exhibition on the first floor of the museum.
Have you ever been to Russia? Tell us about the artifacts you brought home with you in the comments area below.
June 19, 2009
The Fourth of July isn’t the only Independence Day in America.
On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston, Texas, bringing news to the town that the Civil War had ended and that all slaves were free. This was nearly two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Before long, the former slaves in southeastern Texas began to celebrate June 19th as Emancipation Day. Eventually, they shortened the name to Juneteenth.
An exhibit at the Anacostia Community Museum entitled Jubilee: African American Celebration features information and artifacts related to Emancipation Day festivities like Juneteenth and other African-American traditions.
“People can learn about different celebrations. It’s like looking at African-American history through the lens of these special celebrations, including Juneteenth,” said Robert Hall, associate director for education at the museum.
But Juneteenth isn’t just a historical holiday; modern celebrations are increasing throughout the country, said Cliff Robinson, founder of Juneteenth.com, a Web site that allows individuals or groups to post information and photos from Juneteenth celebrations.
“We’ve had people from all 50 states and around the world posting on our site,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen some celebrations that try to make it historic in terms of costume, but today it can be anything: a family dinner, a backyard barbecue and everything to a concert downtown or a citywide parade. It has expanded.”
I spoke with Dr. William Wiggins Jr., professor Emeritus of Folklore at Indiana University and author of Jubilation: African-American Celebrations in the Southeast, about the history and future of Juneteenth.
Why did it take so long for word of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas?
One of the popular legends associated with that is that Lincoln dispatched Union soldiers to move throughout the South to spread the word, and it took until the 19th of June.
But I think on the other end, you could perhaps say it took so long because of the resistance to emancipation itself. Texas was one of the last outposts of slavery and Galveston is sort of the epicenter. In fact, one of the last fights in the Civil War was done in Galveston and the Union forces were repelled. There had been a big resistance all along and it was because of this fact that word got slowly to east Texas. Then Gordon Granger was dispatched with a group of Union soldiers and landed at Galveston and spread the word and proceeded to go up into east Texas. He gave the executive order that slavery was no longer official and people had to compensate slaves for their labor. Texas was just sort of the outlier and took some time.
More from Dr. Wiggins after the jump.